moved that Bill C-55, an act to amend the Oceans Act and the Canada Petroleum Resources Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege for me to speak in the House on this important legislation at the beginning of second reading debate. It is the first chance I have had as Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard to speak on a piece of government legislation in my portfolio, so you can imagine how pleased I am to be standing in the House today and to have a chance to talk to colleagues about an important element of our government's agenda.
Canada is uniquely blessed with an abundance of freshwater and marine coastal areas that are both ecologically diverse and economically significant. Our government knows that we have a responsibility to steward these resources for future generations.
In my mandate letter, I was asked by the Prime Minister to increase the proportion of Canada's marine and coastal areas that are protected to 5% by the end of 2017 and to 10% by 2020. I am pleased and proud to say that thanks to the efforts of so many people and so many organizations, we will meet these targets. It is a commitment we made to Canadians, and Canadians should know that we will meet this important obligation.
Internationally, Canada's commitment to meet the 10% target was confirmed when we signed on to Aichi target 11, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and again, in 2015, when we supported the UN General Assembly's 2030 sustainable development program. These efforts have garnered multi-party support over many years, and I want to thank colleagues on all sides of the House for their commitment to protecting Canada's marine resources.
Our approach to achieving Canada's marine conservation targets includes creating marine protected areas and networks, and is guided by three foundational principles: science-based decision making, transparency, and advancing reconciliation with indigenous groups.
Co-operation is essential to advancing our marine protection work, and we are working with the provinces and territories, indigenous groups, industry, and other environmental stakeholders to establish networks of marine protected areas.
We are committed to furthering reconciliation while these zones are being established. We strive to work more closely with indigenous groups, including Inuit communities, of course, to inform the process and make the most of their traditional knowledge.
Our government has a clear plan to reach these marine conservation targets. Not only is this plan guiding our domestic efforts, it is also helping us reclaim Canada's position as an international leader in ocean conservation. We are making excellent progress. We have now protected 3.63% of Canada's marine environment. At over 200,000 square kilometres, this new total includes long-term fisheries area closures, which the Prime Minister referred to a few moments ago in question period.
The first piece of our plan is to finish what was started, to complete the designation of marine protected areas that were already in the regulatory process. We currently have 11 Oceans Act MPAs in all three oceans. This year alone we have announced the establishment of the Hecate Strait MPA, off British Columbia, which provides protection for globally unique glass sponge reefs, which are thousands of years old. We also created the St. Anns Bank MPA, off Cape Breton, which is home to many endangered species, such as the leatherback turtle. There is more on the way as we progress with the establishment of, for example, the Laurentian channel and Banc des Américains MPAs as well.
Last month, my colleague the Minister of Environment and Climate Change announced the final boundaries of the Lancaster Sound national marine conservation area. This was a very significant step, obviously in partnership with the Inuit people. The boundaries of this marine conservation area, the largest in Canada, were developed by the federal government in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and are located in the Northwest Passage. This area is of particular importance, as it is home to one of the largest narwhal populations in the world.
The second point in our plan is to protect large offshore areas. In May, a new area of interest in the offshore Pacific was announced. This new area of interest will protect underwater seamounts and a series of hydrothermal vents, recognized as unique marine ecosystems in our offshore.
Our development of this network of MPAs speaks to the third point in our plan: to protect areas under pressure from human activities.
We have made great progress on the fourth part of our plan, which is to develop guidelines to identify other effective area-based conservation measures. These other measures are an important part of our marine conservation tool kit, which is recognized by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Thirty-two closures of fishing areas reflect our rigorous criteria and will help us meet our conservation targets. Other measures will be proposed in the future.
The final point in our plan addresses the need to establish marine protected areas faster under the Oceans Act, but without in any way sacrificing scientific research, socio-economic activities, and our consultation and co-operation efforts with our partners.
Bill C-55 speaks directly to that last point. The proposed amendments will streamline the process of creating new marine protected areas while guaranteeing their protection. These amendments are collaborative, in that they will require the participation of indigenous groups, provinces and territories, industry, and other stakeholders in the process of creating and managing MPAs.
For instance, pursuant to the minister's new authority to delegate enforcement powers, indigenous groups like the guardian watchmen or other environmental groups could be granted enforcement powers to monitor protected areas in their waters. The amendments can improve our marine protected areas, though not at the expense of our working relationships, of course.
In short, Bill C-55 proposes amendments to the Oceans Act to more clearly reflect my responsibility, as Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, to establish a national network of marine protected areas.
I would like to focus on a few major changes, if I may. Currently, it takes seven to ten years to officially designate an Oceans Act MPA. Through all those intervening years, the potential MPA gets no protection at all. The solution we propose in Bill C-55 is to provide interim protection for these vital, unique areas in Canada's oceans by means of a ministerial order. This will be done after the scientific assessments and the initial consultations, in just 24 months, while the rest of the federal regulatory process to designate the MPA unfolds over the following five years. It may still take up to seven years for an MPA to be fully established, but interim protection could be provided within the first two years.
Currently, an Oceans Act marine protected area can only be designated through Governor in Council regulations, which do not offer any protection to an area of interest until the final designation regulations are published.
The lengthiness of this current process is due in part to the time required to take scientific assessments and broad consultations. These are important steps that ensure an MPA achieves its intended objectives while supporting the local culture and obviously, the local economy.
However, we know there is often a clear understanding from the beginning of what needs to be protected. For example, we may know that a species reproduces only in a certain area of the ocean, or that glass sponge reefs are a priceless natural wonder that need to be protected, even if we may not yet know all of the specifics of how these species are affected by surrounding ecosystems, boat traffic, or fishing activities.
Establishing boundaries and conservation objectives through an interim protection MPA would mean a much shorter timeframe, ensuring that while scientific research and stakeholder engagement continues, the essential elements of these important ecosystems are, in fact, protected.
An interim protection MPA would protect an area by effectively freezing the footprint of ongoing activities until the final regulations are completed, as I said, within five years. Only ongoing activities, those activities that had taken place, for example, within the preceding year, would be allowed to continue. Allowed or prohibited activities would be determined by the class of the activity, not according, obviously, to the individual or company conducting those activities.
This bill would require application of the precautionary principle when deciding whether to designate new MPAs. The precautionary principle means that the absence of scientific certainty should not be used to postpone decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm. Under this legislation, incomplete information, or a lack of absolute certainty could no longer be used as a justification for avoiding the establishment of a marine protected area where there is a significant and immediate risk.
Bill C-55 also updates, modernizes and strengthens enforcement powers, fines and penalties.
Provisions relating to enforcement, fines, and penalties will support the people who manage and monitor marine protected areas.
Enforcement officers will get the tools and authority they need to manage marine protected areas.
Bill C-55 also proposes amendments to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act that would complement the freeze-the-footprint process of an interim marine protected area. These would provide the competent minister the authority to prohibit authorized oil and gas exploration or development activities, like, for example, seismic testing, drilling, or production, within a designated marine protected area.
Proposed amendments to the Canada Petroleum Resources Act recognize that where there interest of an oil and gas exploration and development overlap with a marine protected area, ambiguity and uncertainty in the effectiveness of the prohibitions could sometimes result. Natural Resources Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada would continue to discuss with all of our partners how this principle could best be operationalized.
I would like to briefly describe what we have been doing to engage with our regulatory partners, indigenous groups, and other interested parties, familiarize them with proposed changes to the act, and address their concerns.
In recent months, we have met with provincial and territorial representatives, indigenous groups, and stakeholders in the fisheries, marine transportation, and oil and gas sectors, as well as environmental groups and a number of other Canadians.
On the whole, we have received broad support for the proposed changes. For the most part, Canadians are happy with what we are doing to protect our unique and precious marine ecosystems.
I would like to talk about something this bill does not set out to do.
The proposed changes are not meant to short-circuit the development of reliable scientific data or deprive Canadians of the opportunity to contribute to the creation of interim marine protected areas. Our government knows that the effective management of Canada’s oceans depends on an in-depth understanding of the marine environment acquired through peer-reviewed science, the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, as well as information from the fishing industry and local communities.
This kind of comprehensive study and mobilization takes time, something that certain vulnerable areas of the ocean might not have. That is why we are proposing the implementation of the precautionary principle, in conjunction with the option to use ministerial orders to ensure immediate interim protection. In light of the concerns of industry stakeholders, we will apply the precautionary principle judiciously.
Many people fear that we do not have sufficient scientific resources to carry out the work needed within the five-year timeframe following the ministerial order, or that the precautionary principle could serve as an excuse for not doing any research at all. That is false. Our commitment to science and data collection remains unwavering. We have heard people's concerns, and we agree that our fundamental principle of science-based decision making must not be compromised under any circumstances.
In conclusion, if Bill C-55 would speed up marine protection without sacrificing science, or the ability of Canadians to shape this important process, then I hope all members of the House would join our government in enacting this legislation. This is a powerful step forward that our government is making on one of the key commitments we made to Canadians by protecting 5% our marine and coastal areas this year, and by 10% in 2020.
I am happy to be participating in this important debate today. I look forward to working with colleagues on all sides of the House, and members of the standing committee should this legislation get to committee, to ensure we have all of the details of this important legislation right. We look forward to hearing from Canadians in the committee process of not just this House but also the other place.
If we work together on the shared objectives that Canadians care deeply about, such as protecting our marine resources for future generations, then Canadians can be proud of the work that this Parliament is doing, and we can improve not only the protection of valuable ecosystems but also the economic livelihood of coastal communities all across the country.